History in the making

Writers write. They write when they are oppressed. They write when they are starving, destitute. They write when they are ecstatic. No matter the circumstances, writers write. Sure, they can stop writing for months, years, decades even. I’m not at all advocating that you can only call yourself a writer if you write every day – gods know I haven’t! But writers, in the end, always come back to the page and write. They have no other choice.

The point I am trying to make here has to do with the current global turmoil – a tense election in the US, the UK leaving the EU, ISIS, human rights violations in still so many places, animals dying out by the bucketload, global warming… The world is not a happy place. And while some may think this is a reason for writers to go and ‘get real jobs’ and ‘contribute’, I think it is actually the most important time to have writers, of any sort, writing and sharing their words. There is no contribution more important than our inner truth.

Writers give hope, release, strength, anxiety, truth, fear, sadness… Writers make us feel and think. And we need more than ever to feel and think. Research has shown that reading books makes people more empathic, and in today’s cold world, we need all the empathy we can get. So read, and write, and make art. When future generations look back at us, I hope they will see more than the crazy, thoughtless, selfish decisions that many of us are making, either deliberately or through plain ignorance, flawed self-preservation instincts or denial. I hope they will see our beautiful art, the reports of people who did know better, who wanted to to do better, who were full of despair at the reality around them. I hope they will think of us kindly. Right now, I do not think of us kindly. And that, as everything else, is fodder for writing.

Sorry for not posting anything for such a long while and then writing something so somber. I can’t help thinking about the historical implications of what people are doing in and to the world today, and worrying. I hope I will feel more optimistic on Wednesday… And I hope I will follow my own advice and rediscover the release and relief that can come from writing.


When is The Lord of the Rings not The Lord of the Rings?

The short answer, of course, is when it’s not written by JRR Tolkien. Now I should make it clear that I am not talking about the movies in any way, we can all agree they are a perfectly valid adaptation of The Lord of the Rings’ books, Peter Jackson has the rights to prove it and everything. I want to talk in this post about the countless of authors, and countless of books, that over the years have been inspired by The Lord of the Rings.

Handed down from one generation to the next, until there is only tape holding it together.

The cover of my (very nearly dead) copy of The Lord of the Rings

Now JRR Tolkien is by no means the first author to have written what can be described as ‘a life’s work’ or ‘magnum opus’. That honour belongs maybe to Homerus (or Homer, as the English-speakers call him), or some Egyptian with a very strong arm (from chipping out all those hieroglyphs, geddit). What JRR Tolkien did was write an era-defining, genre-defining (probably even genre-creating) work of fiction that influenced a generation of young kids who then became the authors we love (not just authors, of course, I think it took the internet and social media to create the first generation wherein everyone is an author of some kind, but that’s an aside), as well as influencing several generations after it, present and future included.

There are of course the obvious influences, like David Eddings, Steven Erikson, basically any epic fantasy writer. It is easy to see how these authors have been influenced not only by the story structure (i.e. person finds out they are special, goes on quest, hijinks ensue, thingamabob is used to destroy ultimate evil, the whole world breathes a sigh of relief), but also the rich and fantastical world creation of Tolkien. Then there are some authors who take the world-building, and create a different kind of story (hello, Laura Lam), or take the story structure and transpose it into our world (Wesley Chu, maybe? I can’t think). Then there are authors like Stephen King, George RR Martin, and Scott Lynch, who do something that is similar yet completely different.

I am currently reading the Dark Tower series, which is what influenced this whole post in the first place. At the start of every book in the series (at least the edition I’m reading) there is a little intro by King, talking about being 19 and wanting to create his own Lord of the Rings (mixed with a Western, say thankya). Yet there is nothing about the Dark Tower series that seems to relate to Tolkien’s vision. Yes, there is a tower, and yes, there is a big evil with a big eye (of sorts). And yes, there is a ‘hero’ seeking the tower. But Roland Deschain is not really a hero, not in the Tolkien sense. He murders, a lot, and isn’t that good at making friends, let alone keeping them. The world is somewhere between a complete fantasy world and ours, with elements of both thrown together (I’m trying not to be specific so I don’t spoil anything). And, most importantly, it doesn’t feel at all like The Lord of the Rings. Everyone is at least a little good, a little evil, and a lot screwed up. Right and wrong is not so clear-cut. The lines between reality and fantasy get quite blurred a few books in (book 6 oh em gee go Stephen). I’m sure people who hate The Lord of the Rings could still enjoy the Dark Tower series.

The same can be said of the world Scott Lynch has created for Locke Lamora and the Gentleman Bastards. From their name alone you can tell they won’t be squeaky-clean heroes. The world is pure fantasy, but there’s science more than there is magic, and tricks more than there are actual illusions. It’s gritty and real and immersive in a completely different way from Stephen King, from Tolkien, from anyone else. The same goes for Westeros, which has often been described as Middle Earth with added boobies and swearing. It’s got more political intrigue, more shady characters, more murders, more dragons, and more kick-ass girl assassins than Tolkien could ever had contemplated. And most importantly of all, it has its own unique voice.

Twice dead :(

OK, so Westeros and Middle Earth do have something in common…

Now, this might seem fairly obvious. No writer writes like any other writer. And I’m sure you could argue that the straight-forward epic fantasy examples I’ve mentioned are also completely different from the world of Tolkien. But my point, as far as I still remember that I had one, is that the best writers don’t try to deny their influences, they don’t try and hide the fact that their work was inspired by the previous generation, and they don’t try to copy it. By appreciating it for what it is, by letting it be its own thing, and by going so deep into appreciating the story that they sort of mind-meld with the writerly ghost of Tolkien himself, they can create something that is wholly their own, and therefore wholly different.

So don’t be afraid to read in the genre you write in. Don’t be afraid to read outside it either, read whatever you want. As long as you commit yourself to making something that is wholly unique, wholly you, and always aim to become a better writer, no matter where you are in your career, there is no fear of you being accused of reusing plots or copying others. You don’t avoid such things by avoiding reading, you avoid it by reading deeply and understanding as much as you can about the writers that have gone before you.

P.S. Sorry it took me a while to get this post out (which I promised to be ‘coming soon’ in my last post), and that it’s not more coherent or more directly related to The Lord of the Rings. I’ll aim to be better next time.

Short post on a short-short story

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Dear Damsels (for some reason I keep trying to write Dead Damsels, hmmm), they are a collective of kickass ladies who publish all sorts of short stories (up to 800 words, can be fiction or not) under a monthly theme. If you are a female writer starting out with short story submissions, it’s a great place to go and get inspired, and write about a given concept in your own unique way.

I am very happy to report that on this amazingly sunny Sunday, my short story Same Old has been chosen to kick off May’s theme of Tradition on the site. Please check it out, and also check out some cool stories under last month’s theme of language, sign up to the newsletter, etc. As always, I would love to get some feedback, on the story, my bio, my pen name, whatever you want to comment on. Now I’m off to enjoy the sunshine again with Mur Lafferty’s Ghost Train to New Orleans as company; hope it’s sunny wherever you are! You can expect a bigger blog post (on Lord of the Rings, but not of the same length) some less sunny day in the not too distant future.

Happy writing!

Writing for fun or profit

I’ve been struggling lately, not just with moving to a different country and looking for a job, but also with what to write. My main problem, I think, is that because I don’t have a job, I’m feeling undue pressure to write something that sells. And this never works, if any of the published authors I follow on Twitter and any of the writing books I’ve read are anything to go by. And yet, paradoxically, continuing to write and edit a story that is never going to sell is also something even published authors still have to worry about. Every writer has an unfinished manuscript in a (digital) drawer somewhere, even the very best. So how do you* distinguish between a story that you’re writing for fun AND profit, and one that you’re writing for just one of the two?

You’d think it would be easy to determine when you’re not having fun writing something. If you hate working on it, if you have to drag yourself to the keyboard, then obviously you’re not having fun. And yet… Writing isn’t going to always be fun. At least if your goal is to be published, it can’t be just fun and games. You have to write on the days when you don’t want to. You have to keep going. It’s the only way to improve, to get through the 1000 hours of apprenticeship, the 100,000 words before you’re competent. And then there’s all the editing and polishing… Need I say more?

On the side of profit, there are even fewer guarantees. Whatever is trendy at the moment, is not going to be trendy anymore by the time you might be ready to query your manuscript. Never write for the market, because it changes too fast. The only way you can even slightly predict some sort of profit is by writing the best story that you possibly can, and submitting it to the right people, the ones who love stories like yours. It’s by no means an exact science, and probably defies any statistics, as, again, any published author would tell you.

So I’m basically screwed, right? There’s no way of knowing? Not necessarily! You’ll be happy to know this post isn’t all doom and gloom. Most writing advice states that if you believe in a story, with all your heart and imagination and everything else, then that’s the story to tell for fun AND the most likely to get published. It’s the story you will most likely want to keep writing even after bad writing days, or weeks. It’s the story that refuses to leave you alone. If you’re not sure how much you believe in your story, there’s always beta-readers to ask, as long as you ask some unbiased ones (i.e. don’t ask random friends if you should keep working on your stuff, if it’s good enough, because they will almost always lie to protect your feelings). And if someone tells you the story sucks, and you vehemently disagree, then get a second opinion because you’re obviously either still very passionate about it, or blinded by ego.

Now, having puzzled all of this out, my next steps should be simple, right? All I have to do is figure out which one of my writing projects I am most passionate about, and forget about everything else. If only it were that simple…

Is anyone else struggling with picking what story to invest in? Or just struggling in general? I’d love to hear some other perspectives!


*And by you I of course mean I…

Diversity in writing and publishing

There is almost nothing more diverse than people’s opinions about diversity. In general, almost everyone agrees that a certain amount of diversity is a necessary thing; if everything and everyone was the same, the world would be a very dull, stagnant place. Yet everyone has their own unspoken limit about how much diversity they can handle. Some can’t even fathom how any movie with a black and/or female lead could ever work (hello Star Wars aka biggest blockbuster ever), while others might draw the line at equality for human-cat hybrids, to posit some extremes.


Diversity is all well and good, as long as everyone looks like John Malkovich, amirite?

There have been many essays, many research papers, many discussions, about the necessity of diversity, in books, movies, boardrooms, anywhere. Most of these discuss diversity in terms of race and gender. I want to talk about a different kind of diversity, the kind that deals with biases in terms of people’s opportunities in life. Recently, RandomPenguinHouse (I so wish that was their merger name) announced that it would no longer require its applicants to have a degree. While this may seem like an insignificant, benign gesture, especially in Europe, where people are generally able to receive a lot of financial support to complete a degree, there’s no denying that fortune, i.e. degrees, still favours the fortunate. In fact, the current UK government is doing everything in its power to make university education just as expensive as the US, tilting the scales firmly towards the higher earners (which are still predominantly white males, so boring).

Let's help each other

Research shows that teams with a diverse mix of people are more productive

I’ve been researching ways to get a job in publishing. You can work in a bookstore, do an (often unpaid) internship, get a specific kind of degree, or…? And if you’re in the UK, you also have to be able to afford to live close to London, at least for most job opportunities. In the US, New York would be your very expensive destination. So what it comes down to is that even without a degree requirement, you still need to be able to fund lowly or unpaid work in a horribly expensive city. When you look at it like this, there’s still a long way to go.

I am interning at a company at the moment (paid, luckily), working with an editor that started off as a speculative intern (i.e. an internship not attached to a degree, like mine), who then decided to go get a degree, and a Masters in Journalism, to give herself some theoretical background. Plenty of other people at the company started as interns and worked their way up. I am also working with/for an amazing senior editor who started off in marketing. They hired me with a PhD and almost no editing experience (at the time). My point, aside from raving about my current place of work, is that diversity goes beyond whether someone has had higher education or not, whether they are a certain race, a certain gender (my current company only has 1 male employee, by the way, and it’s the most supportive, tough, hard-working environment I have ever encountered). Diversity, and this is why PRH’s decision is bigger than I’ve now made it seem, comes from first acknowledging that it is wise to hire people from different backgrounds. Technical people, artsy people, sciency people, they all bring different, fresh perspectives, which are what most companies desperately need to stay relevant.

From a writing point of view, some writers have MFAs, some don’t. It doesn’t matter as long as they can tell a compelling story. Compelling stories, they come from life, from different experiences. And so I come back to diversity. We’ve had so many stories about the plucky, muscled white guy who finds out he’s a hero and gets the girl as a reward. Just making this same hero black, or a woman, breathes so much new life into such an old trope, I frankly don’t understand why more writers don’t take this relatively easy opportunity to spice up their stories. Even the same plucky white guy, only he’s in a wheelchair – think of the story possibilities! I recently beta-read a story with a character who I thought was destined to be Mr Love-Interest until it was casually mentioned he was gay. Let me tell you, it was such a relief! Not that people have to be gay in order to not be forced love interests, of course, but still, + 100 diversity and interestingness points! It’s THAT easy.


P.S. Writing is clearly not that easy, or I’d be writing my book right now instead of this post, but you get the idea. The new, shiny, diverse idea.

Travel inspiration

Write what you know

To write a lot, read a lot

Observe people and how they speak

There is a lot of ‘age-old’ writing advice, little nuggets that in reality are entirely dependent upon the writer’s personality, the kind of stories they want to tell, and probably also the weather. One of these pieces of advice writers are often given is to travel. While I think that’s a great (though costly) suggestion, and I’ve certainly enriched my stories by traveling to places that have then been featured in them, I would like to mention some possible addenda to this advice.


Stories create (imaginary) travel, travel creates stories

When people think of travel, they are prone to think of a vacation, a brief trip to a new place. Often this includes highlights: famous monuments, buildings etc., popular shopping locations maybe, and of course the very best (touristy-oriented) local foods. While these kinds of trips may give you some interesting places to describe, and some much-needed relaxation to recharge the creative batteries, I don’t believe they are the kind of travelling that enriches a writer’s imagination.

The advice to travel is closely related to the advice to observe people. The kind of travel that gives writers new insights, that really can make a huge difference (and has, if you look at some famous writers’ biographies), is the kind that allows you to observe local people in their everyday lives. Not just the way they speak, which might be entirely foreign, but the little things that you never realise could be done differently until you view them from an outside perspective, as an anthropologist of sorts. Just try to explain your Christmas traditions to someone from a different country; even Americans and Brits, cultures thought to be so close together, will need to do some ‘translating’. People from different states/provinces might even give different answers. From an outside perspective, you can see and write down things that you would otherwise have thought needed no comment. This works even if your stories take place on a different planet.

The other benefit of traveling is to get to know yourself better. By staying to the safe, popular options, you are less likely to gain new insights. Learning about local differences, talking to new people, maybe overcoming some social anxiety (or that could just be me), can teach you a lot about yourself, and help you grow as a person. There’s a reason why so many European students/18-year-olds take a ‘gap year’ after school to travel around.

Not everyone (hardly anyone, in fact) can afford to move to a different continent and live there for a year, soaking in the atmosphere, the local ways of doing things, the realities of what it means to be a local in an entirely foreign culture. Sure, it worked for Elizabeth Gilbert on a small budget, but she still had a budget and didn’t have to worry much about what she was leaving behind. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope for more settled people. All it takes is to go sit in a pub or cafe frequented by locals, instead of visiting the Louvre. Sit all day, chat to people, really soak up the foreign-ness of where you are. You may not need to even leave the country to do this, just going a few towns past your ‘known world’ can be enough to expose yourself to different ways of speaking, doing, and seeing the world.

For the best results, you’d need to spend a substantial amount of time in a place, to ‘go native’ as anthropologists say. What also may work is to go some place outside your comfort/home zone frequently, to spend your weekends discovering new local watering holes in places all around you. But you won’t know what kind of inspiration you’re looking for, what kind of insights you might find, until you try.

So this holiday season, when/if you have some time off, why not try an experiment? Take your notebook, go somewhere you’ve never been before, find a place that a lot of locals hang out in, and just observe. You could even take your laptop and profit from your instant imagination-boost. As the age-old advice says, it can only make your writing better.

evening-kerry-pub-sceneIn a way, everything you do can make you a better writer, as long as you are observant enough to notice what, why and how you are doing it.


Am I talking too much?

How is everyone? Still alive? Survived NaNoWriMo, and life in general, for the last month? Congratulations, even if you didn’t manage 50k words in November, as long as you wrote some words, you can always add more.


My 6th win. And more importantly, a plot bunny!

I ‘won’ NaNo again, though not by a wide margin this year (only 53k compared to my usual 65k+), and for the first time without any hope of being able to revive the story as it stands. Aside from the many plot holes (also something I don’t usually excel at) I kept having this sinking feeling that there was just way too much dialogue.

It’s hard to find a good balance between action and talking. While there are many non-verbal cues, talking is still the best way to convey who a character is, and what is going on, especially when you’ve got a big cast and a convoluted story-line. When I first did NaNo, I had not nearly enough talking, just action-beats all the way through. Then I did ScriptFrenzy to try and get better at dialogue, and ever since I’ve had a lot of talking in my novels, especially with this story that started out as a script. So where is the line between helpful dialogue and story-stalling conversations?

As with any sort of writing ‘advice’ or contemplation, the answer is that ‘it depends’. There are some great writers out there who have amazing novels that are almost no action, with a large amount of dialogue. I mean, if it worked for Shakespeare… Then there are great novels with almost no dialogue, except inner dialogue maybe. And not all of these novels are necessarily action-packed to compensate. Every writer has their own style, their own balance, crafted out of many millions of words and thousands of hours of practice.

That doesn’t mean however that readers aren’t attracted to a certain kind of balance for a certain kind of story. Specific genres (again with the exception of the great, exceptional books in those genres) tend to come with specific balancing acts. High literature is considered more wordy, more dialogue-y, than fast-paced fantasy or thriller novels. Romance obviously requires some dialogue, at the very least as foreplay to the main ‘action’. Sci-fi has both dialogue and action in a fine balance of the scales. We’re all readers here, we know what we like to see when we pick up a certain type of book.

That’s not to say that dialogue is opposed to action. Dialogue can create action and momentum just as easily as it can stall things entirely. Easy reading however does not make for easy writing, and it’s a lot easier to stall your story with conversation than it is to help move it along. There’s a reason why so many writing guides mention exposition as the Big Bad that must be avoided at all times; it’s a common newbie mistake.

So how do you make your dialogue support and propel the story, the action? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m trying to find out. So if you read this, and you have your own experiences wrestling with the dialogue in your novel, then do please share. If you’ve read a novel that makes excellent use of dialogue, then please share that. Maybe we can figure it out together.